THE GREAT NUTRITION GAME
How it’s played with dice (below)—and with your shopping bag (riaht)
HOW TO PLAY THE GREAT NUTRITION GAME: 1. You need only a pair of dice and a love of good food. 2. For tokens, use nuts, sunflower seeds, dried beans or your imagination. 3. Number of players: the family. 4. Throw dice and follow instructions on board. First to reach centre wins.
Everyone is an expert about food. The people who eat the stuff are experts on how it tastes; manufacturers are experts at creating new prod-
ucts to sell us; stores are experts on presenting those products; the Food and Drug Directorate is expert in seeing that our foods are safe; the Department of Agriculture is expert in keeping our soil and our farmers happy; and behind them are the dieticians, food chemists and nutritionists making sure we eat the right thing. So if all these experts are doing all that work, how come an expert cook, such as myself, has become increasingly confused and unhappy at how bland and mushy-textured most of the food we get seems to be?
With all the packages, the cans and the frozen meals ávailable, and the emphasis on convenient preparation, it’s become much too easy to buy by price alone, instead of thinking about taste and nutrition.
I wasn’t always so fussy about food. I used to be satisfied with making tricky sauces to disguise the supermarket chicken specials, or throwing together a fast meal from packages that contained starch, shortening, propylene, glycol and monostearate. Then a few years ago I became a customer of Mike Desborough, who has a butcher counter in the back of an excellent little downtown Toronto fruit store.
Mike talked me into buying one of his turkeys for Christmas. “It’s more expensive,” he warned, “but I guarantee it’ll be the best eating turkey you’ve ever had.” It was an incredible turkey — I couldn’t believe there could be such an enormous gulf between his turkeys and the ones I usually bought. Well, I haven’t bought a frozen job for years since, except to make pies, stews or soup. For real eating, I go to Mike. The difference, it seems, is that his turkeys are reared on free-range. “My turkeys live a natural life — they even have dirty feet when I get them. They’re on high-protein diets, but not kept prisoner in a little coop and force-fed on an almost liquid diet.” Unfortunately, Mike’s turkeys are available only at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so the rest of the time I make do.
Making do generally isn't good enough for my family and it started me on a passionate avocation of finding better-tasting food, and,
hopefully, food with lots more nutrition than I’d been getting in my penny-saving supermarket jaunts.
My first effort was to hit the farmers’ markets every Saturday morning. Initially, I had to sort out just who was a real farmer and who was merely picking up produce from the Toronto Terminal Warehouses where the huge food industries dump their goodies. I wanted personally handled vegetables. I found that I spent far more money at the farmers’ markets, but I did have the assurance that I was getting produce that had been picked within living memory. Potatoes with dirt on them, and not a spot of green anywhere, began
to look as appealing as big ripe juicy tomatoes or strawberries in season.
Finding just-picked, or peak-of-flavor fruit and vegetables can be an expensive, time-consuming passion. We don’t own a car and must rent one to venture out of town. But the urge for fresh food has become a profound need that must be satisfied. Sometimes we have to drive only 40 miles to get lucky by spotting a roadside stand that belongs to a real farmer. Other times we find ourselves 80 or 100 miles out of town with nothing in sight and little conversation in the car but, “Just over that hill, darling, I remember a marvellous stand ...”
Today, it seems, vegetables being offered in many city markets are bred with mechanization in mind, shaped so that they can be easily har
vested in volume by machines. There’s a square tomato being developed, I’m told, that will ripen at the same time as all the other square tomatoes and will last longer, so that it can be packed and transported without damage. Sounds awful to me. I wonder if anyone will consider how it tastes.
I took my taste problems to Dr. Barbara McLaren, Dean of the Faculty of Food Sciences at the University of Toronto. I spoke romantically of the best tomatoes I’d ever eaten — the ones I grew in my backyard. “Of course they tasted good,” she said. “You got them at the peak of perfection and handled them with loving care. Look at industry: there’s going to be two or three days between the time they’re picked and when you get them. They’re going to be handled three or four times in that period. All that handling — and picking before they’re ripe — makes a difference. Cut off the normal growing process and the flavor, texture and keeping quality are likely to be hindered. Take eggs. It used to be that the only good egg was öne from a farm. Now you can’t get to the farm, so big industries have taken over.”
Dr. McLaren assured me that the chemical fertilizers used by most farmers instead of organic fertilizers do not affect the flavor of vegetables. “Not at all,” she said. “Plants must grow in soil that has all the nutrients. If one is missing, they won’t have the best flavor. Industry makes these fertilizers as adequate as it can and, as more and more becomes known, more elements will be put in.”
Still, many people today are worried about all the chemicals being added to the soil, as well as to the water and air. Nobody seems to feel
particularly great, especially in urban areas, so I asked Dr. Ross Chapman at the Food and Drug Directorate in Ottawa about the cumulative effects of all these chemicals floating around combined with the additives going into our foods.
“We are keeping the whole situation in continuous
review,” he said. “When another food additive comes along, the whole spectrum of similar compounds is tested to see if there will be harmful effects.”
But what about analyzing total diet samples in combination with air and water pollution? “This is paper exercise, not research,” said Dr. Chapman. “It would be completely impossible to work out all the thousands of combinations. We test all compounds to make sure that excessive amounts are not being introduced into our foods, and we determine their toxicity and what harmful effects there may be, if any. What you are asking is impossible. There is no way of determining if a person suffers ill effects from a combination of air water pollution and food additives.”
I found it rather chilling that tons of chemicals are dumped annually into our basic life resources and yet there is no way of checking on the cumulative effects.
I talked with Margaret Pope, Chief of the Consumers’ Division at Food and Drug. It seemed to me that there were so many additives and enrichers going into our food that perhaps there was a danger here. “No,” she said, “there is not too much enriching. Regulations establish upper limits for the amounts of vitamins, minerals and amino acids permitted to be added to specially designated foods.”
How are all these additives policed: is that thiamine really going into the mushy bread we get from big bakeries? "We have inspectors,"
she said, “200 in five regional offices and 24 district offices. They are in and out of food-processing plants, checking formulae and food additives to ensure that the levels of nutrients meet our requirements.”
Two hundred people to police the food for 20million doesn’t seem like terrifically fair odds. But there were 57 convictions in the first three quarters of last year. The fines ranged from five dollars to $10 for low-fat content in cheese, to $1,200 for excessive sediment in milk and unsanitary conditions. “We regard our work as fighting off potential food hazards,” Mrs. Pope went on. “Food accidents do happen. We’re here to see that they don’t. That’s not dramatic and it’s hard to give statistics on something that hasn’t happened.”
Canada is lucky. We have very stringent standards set down by our Food and Drug Directorate. But cruising through any store and glancing at the labels on the breakfast cereals in the Super-Krispy-KokoKrunch variety you realize how little real food is there. There’s lots of defatted wheat germ, sodium bicarbonate, hydrogenated vegetable oil, certified colors, wheat starch, and they all have sugar, salt and malt flavoring. Bread has riboflavin, thiamine, niacinimide added because most of the really great stuff is milled right out of the flour and it has to be put back in. As I left one supermarket I heard a woman say, “Don’t
buy that kind of ice cream, it doesn’t stay hard.” I thought to myself, “Quiet, madame, someone will hear you and they’ll add a chemical that will do just that.” Eeeyuk!
Last fall when even the farmers' market was looking sparse, I began noticing that conversa tion with friends centred more and more around
food; and that several of them were reading a book called Let’s Get Well, by Adelle Davis. I bought a copy at a health-food store and asked the clerk what she thought of Miss Davis. “Well,” she said, “Davis is pretty good, even if she still eats meat.”
Miss Davis is an American biochemist, regarded by traditional nutritionists as a food faddist and potentially dangerous. She is also a very good, very convincing writer and her book gave me the incentive to chart my family’s food intake for several days. I found it woefully deficient in vitamins. All sorts of vitamins. So, with a little spot-reading of Let’s Get Well I started administering pills. I worked out the best maximum diet — but did not finish the book.
We started taking vast quantities of yeast, B6 and insolitin. After five days of interminable pill-taking, I broke out in hives that covered me from the bottom of my feet to my scalp. My husband rushed me to the nearest hospital. The first thing the doctor asked as he gazed at my raw and throbbing hide was, “What drugs are you on?” I named my contraceptive pill, plus all the others. He rolled his eyes. “Why, why do you people do these things?” he said. I replied, as he jabbed a needle into me, “Well, you see, I’m reading this book ...” In my ignorance I’d been taking certain B vitamins, but just enough to set up a deficiency in all the other B vitamins.
I decided at this point that I hadn’t really played fair game with the health-food people, so I made the trip into middle suburbia to MacMillan’s Health Centre, Est. 1939. It’s a long, narrow, brightly lighted store — a minor supermarket — that smells terrible to the uninitiated. The pale-green shelves, the placement of the jars of honey, packages of wheat germ, coldpressed unhydrogenized oils are all part of George MacMillan’s devotion to new techniques of presentation,
He's a comfortably rumpled man in his SOs, swathed in an acre of grey suiting, and padding about in sandals. "I gave up wearing shoes a
few years ago: if your feet are miserable, so is the rest of you.” Nothing startling there. He showed me his premises with the pride of a man who knows every product he sells, and can stand behind it. “I’ve never counted, but we have about 1,000 items for sale: from fresh bread made from stone-ground, organically grown wheat to diet supplements.” In each of his two stores MacMillan makes about 700 to 800 sales a week. “Some people come in here just for our honey or one
or two items, others do their entire week’s shopping in here — those would be vegetarians, of course.”
We sat in his little office, at a desk on which were books by Gaylord Hauser, Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, 1000 After-Dinner Stories and Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels, and we talked of the increase in health-food stores. Most cities and towns in Canada have them — from one in Halifax, 14 in Vancouver to 17 in Toronto. Why are they increasing? “Well,” said MacMillan, “I suppose people have started to evaluate the foods they get. We’re told we have the best food in the world, yet sickness increases. There are more allergies now than there were 10 years ago. Traditional nutritionists scoff at us. They find Adelle Davis shocking, too — but new ideas are always unacceptable at first, even in nutrition.”
Talking to the experts didn’t exactly make me feel any happier about the number of synthetic foods around. Then I talked to Alan Phillips, a writer and superb researcher who’d done one of the first articles on cholesterol in 1954, and a series on pollution in 1960 (both for Maclean’s).
Phillips is a dapper, slender man who looks in good health despite a serious car accident last December. "You~ can hardly call what I'm on
a health kick — it can’t be that if one wants to live with as much vitality as possible and not give up the real enjoyment of food. I’ve adjusted my vitamin intake since the accident to help my recovery. I take halibutliver oil, Vitamin C and Vitamin E plus calcium.” Phillips has always considered himself a gourmet, and has a wine cellar in his country home. “We’ve bought large quantities of wheat germ, which we keep refrigerated. We had an asparagus torte made with wheat germ that was absolutely delicious. We have liver every second day. For a snack each day I have a glass of milk with yeast added. For B vitamins, there’s the liver, of course, plus eggs, cheese and nuts.”
I asked him about Adelle Davis. “I think she’s quite sound. In 1954 I went through all the available literature, I interviewed all the top biochemists on the continent. Adelle Davis had all that information in a book that came just after my article, so I knew the ground she’d covered. Two years before it was made known that lecithin homogenizes the fats in the bloodstream, she was hunching that it was so. I think one of the reasons she’s looked at askance by some of the profession is that she overemphasizes to make a point — all writers do that. You have to be very careful when you read her.”
Any pill-taking without consulting a doctor is dumb, as I’d discovered all by myself.
We are pill-happy on this continent; it seems a lot easier to take a bunch of vitamin pills than to actually create good, nutritious meals. I look at the men I
know who drink a lot; they think that by taking a couple of vitamin pills they’ll compensate for the ravages of alcohol. Most of those vitamins are absorbed by the alcohol and flushed out of their systems. They need to eat properly. Then there are all those potty 30-plus men who love to eat and drink who are just plain crazy in their food intake.
It’s difficult not to be dazzled by the huge food promotions and the decadent splendor of our supermarkets, and confused by the little we pick up about nutrition along the way. Yet people are trying to find some kind of truth in an over-informed, undereducated society. Food’s no exception. If you are interested in food and pay attention to its nutrient content, you’re likely to be branded a health-food nut on a health kick. It isn’t so. It’s increasingly important to be aware of what is happening to the way food is produced and how it’s affecting our body chemistry. What it’s doing to our palates is another matter. At the rate we are being exposed to packaged, instant, pre-digested foods, label-reading is a must. Soon everything may taste completely different from its natural form. We’ll need a computer to figure out whether we are getting enough nutrition along with ease of preparation. Probably it will be more expensive to find simple things. Finding top-of-the-crop vegetables or well-trimmed meat is expensive if you live in a city. I think the search, the expense and the time involved are worth it. I know my family is well-fed and healthy.
Canada is not a soil-conscious country — perhaps because we’ve always felt that there was so much of it around it could be abused. But in our larger cities we see less and less of it.
My Utopia is to have my little backyard gar den, as well as some land in the country, so my kids will know where their food comes
from and how good it can taste, fresh. I avoid all the snappy packaged foods I can; I put wheat germ, instead of flour, into most of the food I cook; we eat as close to wholewheat bread as I can find; we all drink lots of milk; we munch away on carrots; celery and apples if it’s necessary to fill up. In spite of my pill experience, we do take codor halibut-liver oil and brewer’s yeast. And the kids have their multiple vitamins. My husband and I eat liver for breakfast every day and, after getting over the initial wooziness at the sight of it, we’ve found it makes us feel just great.
There’s no doubt about it — we’d all be healthier if we really thought about our food before dashing out and buying any old thing on a special. There’s no point in just paying lip service to Good Eating With Canada’s Food Guide. Think about it the next time you open a package. Does it really taste the way it should — and is it doing the very best thing possible for your body? □